I'm still thinking about Virginia Heffernan and her disapproving review of Ken Dychtwald's The Boomer Century: 1946 - 2046, a two-hour PBS documentary that aired in March. Normally I move on, especially when an affront has been levied by someone clearly ignorant of sociology, generational theory, and the history of Boomers' formative years.
If you have not read the previous blog entry, please take a look at Virginia's linked review of Dychtwald's documentary and then my critique of her critique.
One reason I'm pursuing this issue again is because Virginia's review has come back to haunt me. A rather conservative friend of mine mailed me a zinger: a clipped copy of Virginia's review, with the following excerpt underlined in red ink:
"To say that you were born in 1946 to a world of hope, only to have innocence dashed in November 1963, and go on to discover sex and free thought in the subsequent years, is to say that you were born, turned 17 and grew up. It's not to contribute to the writing of a nation's history."
His cover Post-It note resurrected a forceful argument we had had at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center last spring, ironically at a gala to celebrate a new exhibition by sixties pop art icon, Peter Max. He scribbled on the note, "Attached is relevant to the discussion we had at the Fine Arts Center."
He's a highly successful former CEO with whom I've had a few arguments about the validity and value of the generational construct known as Baby Boomers. His storied career has put him in the national spotlight on many occasions ... and he's also a leading-edge Boomer. His opinion matters more than Virginia's.
From his viewpoint, the idea of this generation is mostly irrelevant, mirroring Virginia's opinion. He is also quick to criticize his peers for, as he sees it, self-absorption, failure to realize lofty ideals espoused in the 1960s, and deleterious impact on the nation's current fiscal and social well-being.
Again, the validity of a generational cohort as a segmentation tool, as well as its impact on history, originates from sociology, especially theories advanced by Karl Mannheim. I'll briefly broaden the thinking I shared in my previous post.
Mannheim introduced the idea that young generations are imperfectly socialized because of a gap between the ideals they have learned from older generations and the realities they experience. Through a process called intergenerational continuity, children and young teenagers learn values from parents, and often share similar core ideals through life.
However, beginning around age 17, members of the younger generation experience society differently, leading to a "visible and striking transformation of the consciousness of the individual ... a change not merely in the content of experience, but in the individual's mental and spiritual adjustment."
Mannheim called this fresh contact, suggesting a mechanism to explain how a person develops meaning based on personal experiences within a social context, "which is necessarily different from other generations."
Driven by the imperatives of biology and social context, generational consciousness involves forming "collective mentalities that mirror a dominant view of the world, reflecting similar attitudes and values and providing a basis for shared action." These mentalities lead to "continuing practice," meaning that the unique values formed collectively by a generation continue to influence individual behavior throughout life.
So how could my attitudes about Boomers be so different from my friend and colleague, yet we belong to the same generation?
Mannheim also provided for this. Generations differentiate into sub-cohorts. "Youth experiencing the same concrete historical problems may be said to be part of the same actual generation; while those groups within the same actual generation which work up the material of their common experiences in different specific ways, constitute separate generation units."
My friend hails from the conservative unit, which often assails Boomers for every type of social and economic evil. His opinions coincide with other high-profile critics of the same generation, including, for example, prominent New York Times writers: David Brooks, author of Bobos in Paradise; columnist Nicolas Kristof, who wrote a scathing op-ed piece entitled "The Greediest Generation"; and Daniel Okrent, the Times' ombudsman who in 2000 wrote a four-page essay in TIME magazine entitled "Twilight of the Boomers." Virginia is in good company.
On one point Virginia and I agree: 19 years is too long of a period to encapsulate a unique generational cohort. As she postulated, the period from 1946 to 1964 "seems like an awfully long spread for a single generation: by this definition, old boomers could even be the parents of young boomers."
My business book is entitled Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers, which focuses on the first half of the generation born between 1946 and 1955. Even five years ago when I began writing the 1st edition, I recognized that the younger half of the demographic generation came of age at a very different time in history (during the Carter and Reagan administrations), and their values and ideals also differed from their leading-edge brothers and sisters (who came of age during the Johnson and Nixon administrations). The second half of the demographic birth boom has been called Trailing-Edge Boomers, but I prefer the Generation Jones construct that has been conceived and articulated by my colleague, Jonathan Pontell.
So, again, how can the same generation accommodate such extremes in attitudes about the generation? Maybe the widely different political and social views held by members of the generation are not so different at the roots.
In a research study conducted in the mid-1980s, for example, Jack Whalen at the University of California found that the Boomers who voted for Ronald Reagan or identified with the Libertarian party, and superficially appeared to have become more conservative, also held ideals about personal freedom that reflected those of the New Left during the 1960s.
During our heated discussion at the event celebrating Peter Max, I also proposed to my friend that he holds some keystone values associated with the socially "liberal" unit of the Boomer generation: the notion of gender equality. I mentioned this with his wife standing beside us. You see, she climbed the corporate ladder to make a small fortune in the call center industry. Her career in many ways reflects the institutionalization of feminism, one hallmark of Boomers' march through history. In every sense, she is a liberated Boomer woman. My intractable friend reluctantly nodded agreement with that insight.
So I'll end this post with a photograph that has nothing to do with generational theory, simply because it raises so many other interesting thoughts about the "historical dimension of the social process."